Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Niall Alexander on The Scar

Niall.

I’m not really sure what to say about him. Part of me is jealous because he lives in Scotland and I’m jealous of everyone who doesn’t live in the desert I live in. The other part of me is jealous of him because his blog, The Speculative Scotsman, is absolutely fantastic – I’m talking quality stuff I could only dream of having on my humble page. Not only that, but Niall himself is witty and incredibly fun to talk to. He reads a lot, thinks a lot, and writes a lot. All in all, Niall is quite a superblogger and I’m glad he is. The internet is better for it.

Honestly, I’m incredibly jealous of Niall. I’d love to be able to write half as well as he can, on half the pages that he writes on. I mean, really, just look at the list of places he has posted and you will realize that Niall is a force to be reckoned with and rightfully so. He has earned his place in the speculative fiction blogging pantheon and he fully deserves it.

Niall is one of those guys I’d love to spend some time at the bar with. He’s a guy who I could picture being good friends with both on the internet and off. I respect his views and I love his humor. He’s down to earth, well rounded, genuine and thoughtful. It’s too bad he lives so far away. So, without further ado, I’ll raise my fake beer mug in the general direction of Scotland and toast Niall. He’s a hell of a guy, and I’m incredibly excited, nay, I’m honored that he participated in this event and I know once you read his post you will be glad, as well.

About the author

Niall reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Strange Horizons, tor.com, The SF Foundation, Starburst Magazine and The Speculative Scotsman.

Niall Speculates…

When Sarah approached me about putting together a guest post for Bookworm Blues about disability in science fiction and fantasy, I put my thinking cap on. Given how huge a help she was to me when I lost myself in America last month – the excellent article she contributed to The Speculative Scotsman during my extended vacation was one of my very favourites – it was a forgone conclusion that I’d write something related to the subject, and to begin with, I didn’t think it’d be difficult to come up with a couple contenders.

More fool me.

I read, shall we say, rather a lot. More now than I used to, before the blog, but even then I was a bit of a bookworm; I enjoyed nothing more than the challenge of a new novel. Sarah’s suggestion, however, had me wondering whether I’d accidentally shut out a whole species of speculative fiction, because beyond a couple of all too obvious options, not a lot occurred.

I felt terrible about my ignorance. Flat out embarrassed. So I asked the internet what I could read to remedy this sad situation. And the answers? Well, they surprised me.

You see, as it happened, I had read a bunch of books about or involving disability. I’d only recently worked my way – at long last – through A Game of Thrones, and without being a spoilery sod, I can safely say that George R. R. Martin paralyses a major minor early on. Meanwhile, in Fenrir – a favourite read from last year – one of M. D. Lachlan’s central characters is quadriplegic. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Last but not least, at least for the purposes of this brief piece, there was Songs of the Earth to think about. Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper, whose guest post here on Bookworm Blues – a thoughtful response to Sarah’s review of said debut, wherein she raised the theme we’re all talking about – in large part prompted Special Needs in Strange Worlds. But of course!

So, on the evening of the Sarah’s interesting invitation, I took to bed meaning to consider what I might write in the course of a guest post centred on one or all of the books above. But what I read that night – burning the midnight oil into the wee hours, as ever, with a cat on my lap and by my side a bottomless cup of coffee, the better to keep me conscious – what I read that night entirely changed my mind.

Why? Well let’s get a little background behind us before we get to that.

In a certain sense, The Scar by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko is both a very new novel, and a bit of an oldyin. The first English-language translation of the text – by Elinor Huntington – was only released in America this past February, and it’s yet to see European shores at all, but in Russia, where it originated, The Scar has been earning fans and attracting awards since its original publication in 1997.

In the West it’s got a fair bit of momentum behind it already. Library Journal and Kirkus seem to love it lengthways, and a good few of the bloggers I look to for book reviews have praised The Scar for (among other things) its lavish prose and unorthodox narrative. Rightly so, because off the bat The Scar seems a singular thing, if not in a particularly nice way: it’s a novel with an absolute ass for a protagonist, whose victims are our villains and whose love interest hates him… at least until the tables are turned, which is when things threaten to get good.

At the outset, however, The Scar seems a somewhat uncomfortable reading experience. Not because our central character is such an unpleasant individual, although he assuredly is – Egert Soll, cad at large, is an arrogant, entitled idiot; a bully and a cold-blooded killer to boot – but because of the manner in which the Dyachenkos romanticise his character, with pretty prose and heroic rewards. I found it altogether repugnant.

Eventually, though, Soll does become cognisant of his most crucial character flaws. Indeed, the larger part of The Scar’s shall we say relaxed narrative is concerned with addressing them. Yet his new (and needless to say much improved) outlook on life is not motivated by guilt or remorse or repentance; oh no, not at all. Instead, it arises as a direct result of Soll’s humiliation at the hands of a hobo: an all-powerful Wanderer, we learn later, who has taken exception to the dandy’s woefully one-side duel with a student over a beautiful woman, Toria, who – being of sound mind as well as body, the latter of which is all Soll sees – wants nothing to do with our man.

As is the way of things in this world – shared, incidentally, with four of the Dyachenkos’ other novels – the Wanderer challenges Soll to a duel, and though our posturing protagonist gives it all he’s got, he can’t land a single strike against his opponent… who can, and indeed does. The Wanderer deigns not to kill Soll as Soll slaughtered the student; instead, he scars him very visibly. Then, in the wake of his demeaning defeat, Soll realises that the worst wound the Wanderer inflicted was upon his sense of self.

Far and away “the most extraordinary and distasteful thing was that Egert’s pride had been wounded not from without, but from within,” (p.64) and this is what truly sets The Scar apart: the sudden coming apart of a formerly crude and unusual character. Having been “a hero and the embodiment of fearlessness,” (p.76) Soll is now comprehensively crippled by fear and indecision.

“Egert discovered that the very sight of a drawn sword was exceedingly objectionable to him. Glorious Heaven! The sight of a naked blade, which always caresses the hearts of swordsmen and duelists alike, no longer called up sweet thoughts of glory an victory. Gazing at the tapered steel, Egert was stunned; he now thought only of lacerated skin, of exposed bone, of blood, and of pain, after which death would close in.” (p.60)

You see where I’m going with this?

The Dyachenkos don’t ever define Soll’s condition specifically – no-one goes so far as to question our man’s mental health… not in so many words – given which, I wouldn’t presume to diagnose it with one name over another. In any case, Soll exhibits symptoms of all sorts of anxiety-related ailments, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and everyday depression; he suffers from night terrors, muscle spasms, the sweats and some serious headaches. For a long while he can hardly bring himself to get out of bed, and the merest idea of anything more ambitious leaves him weak at the knees.

In the midst of this internal torment, whatever the cause of it, the consequence is clear: Soll becomes a laughing stock amongst his family, his friends and his men. This is the straw that breaks his heretofore hardy back. He earnestly wishes an end – any end – to the affair, and soon attempts suicide. When even that last resort is thwarted, Soll summons up all the remaining courage he can and leaves home, then the city, until finally he has left his old life behind.

Obviously it catches up with him eventually, but… we’re not going to talk about that today. In fact we’re going to leave the rest of the plot of The Scar well enough alone. Truth be told it doesn’t get any better anyway.

This, then, was the section that made The Scar for me; this exploration of the unplumbed depths of psychological distress. And the Dyachenkos have some interesting observations to make: that fear, for instance, “was a monstrosity, worthless and insignificant when viewed from the outside, but when seen from within, it was an executioner, a tormentor of irresistible power.” (p.76) Speaking as someone with an amount of experience in the matter, is all I’ll say, they really do capture the essence of those excruciating, seemingly insurmountable moments when your mind turns against you.

Before and after, alas, the Dyachenkos are content to follow a rather less remarkable path to fantasy, with one man on the road to righteousness or else ruin at the hands of myriad monsters. But never mind the success or failure of the larger narrative, because (spoilers on the starboard bow) the Ukranian authors commit one of the worst injustices imaginable as regards the representation of disability in speculative fiction: they explain Soll’s condition away as an uncomplicated curse, laid upon him by the Wanderer. And then, as if to add insult to injury, they lay plain the road to recovery, by way of – you guessed it! – a mysterious miracle cure.

To its credit, The Scar boldly goes where surprisingly few fantasy novels have gone before, and in those moments it certainly merits a quantity of the applause it’s gotten. That said, the Dyachenkos are their own worst enemy in the end, as they systematically undercut the most noteworthy aspects of their English-language debut. It may be something of a popular phenomenon in its country of origin, but here and now I don’t know that The Scar is in fact the spellbinding tome that’s been suggested. However, for the insight it offers into the rationale of a psychology less ordinary, you could do – take it from me – a whole lot worse.

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The Speculative Scotsman, in my opinion, is a huge blog that nearly everyone has at least heard of. However, if you haven’t, please right this horrible wrong and go check it out here. You can also follow Niall on Twitter.

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